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Searching the heart : women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America /

Main Author: Lystra, Karen.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Oxford University Press, 1989
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Review by Choice Review

Lystra has closely examined the love letters written by 100 men and women between the 1830s and turn of the century. She argues persuasively that "nineteenth century romantic love was an essential component of the American commitment to self-expression with profound consequences for both public and private life." Drawing on intimate correspondence exchanged during courtship and marriage by middle-class and upper-class white, native-born Americans, Lystra exposes a sexual expression and erotic intensity that belie stereotypes of Victorian repression. The letters also reveal informality, self-disclosure, steamy explicitness, breakdown of sex roles, a shift away from patriarchal values, and faith in a companionate ideal. Although some topics overlap with Ellen K. Rothman's Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (CH, Oct'84), Lystra's study differs in important ways. By limiting research to a period of 70 years, Lystra could scrutinize the documents (all of which come from the Huntington Library) more closely. She also traces the subjects beyond their courtship experience, analyzing progression of the relationships through the stresses and joys of marriage. This strong work is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on the private sphere. College, university, and public libraries. -K. J. Blair, Central Washington University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This eminently readable scholarly study draws on archival evidence from the love letters of more than 100 Americans to reveal that, however reserved their public behavior, middle-class couples of the Victorian era valued and sought emotional and physical intimacy in private. Lystra, assistant professor at California State University, unveils a world of sentiment shielded by an epistolary veil in which a couple could display their ``true'' selves while developing, testing and celebrating their shared commitment. According to her research, the ideal of romantic love served to blur gender roles as lovers strove for mutual sympathy. The author goes beyond letters to investigate the effect of romantic love on marriage, on sex roles in society and on American religious sensibilities. Readers will pore over the copious endnotes and the bibliography of medical and advice manuals of the period, which add interesting details to Lystra's account of the public and private spheres of Victorian sexuality. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved